How to Get Actual Value from Lessons Learned

When I am teaching project management and we get to the subject of lessons learned I often make a joke that if people did lessons learned properly that consultants like me would go out of business – In truth, I’m only half joking. But the point I am making in jest is that if companies fully committed to gathering and learning from lessons they wouldn’t need half the advice that consultants bring to the table.

But here’s the thing, there are 3 important steps on the lessons learned process and if you aren’t doing all three you may as well not do any of them.

Here are the 3 steps:

Step 1: Lessons Gathered

This should be a continual effort throughout the life of the project and not just done at the end. You should be regularly asking team members and stakeholders, regularly collecting data and analysing it, regularly holding formal and information sessions all focused on gathering lessons.

Don’t forget that you should be gathering both the good and the bad. Too many people focus on gathering lessons about what went wrong and make the assumption that if you find out what went wrong and do the opposite in the future that somehow you will be doing what’s right – this logic simply doesn’t stack up. Learn to avoid the bad, not do the opposite of it. Learn about the positives and what worked and replicate that in future. Gathering lessons learned should be an accepted and expected practice throughout your entire project lifecycle.

Step 2: Lessons Stored

If you gather the lessons learned and don’t store them, or don’t store them where people can access them, there is no point in gathering them. You need to be able to store them somewhere highly visible where everyone who needs to see them can easily find them, search them filter them and actually learn from them. I’ve seen companies using Excel for this very well, and I’ve seen specialist pieces of software that allow filters, and meta tags, and keyword searches as well.

But I’ve also seen companies gather lessons learned and then store them deep in a sub-folder in the project folder where no one will ever know about their existence. This is pointless and they could’ve just avoided gathering them for the benefit they will bring.

So, please, make sure you have an easily accessible and searchable repository for your lessons learned.

Step 3: Lessons Learned

If you do steps 1 and 2 and don’t actually learn from the lessons then there is no point in doing the first two steps. Learning the lessons and applying them in the future is the key to getting better.

You may have the opportunity to apply lessons learned on the current project to improve its future prospects. You will definitely have the opportunity to learn from the past on future projects and you need to make sure you are actually doing this. Here are some tips to make sure that you apply the lessons learned and reap the benefits:

1.    Insert a section into your project initiation documents that ask “what have you learned from recent similar projects, and how will you apply these lessons to this project?”. This means that right at the beginning that the database has to be consulted and lessons applied to the current project.

2.    Make it a standing item on governance groups agendas. Ask about lessons gathered, stored and how they have been applied to the current project.

3.    Get people to regularly present to others to share the knowledge or put up posters each month showing valuable lesson learned.

4.    Do some data analysis, such as Pareto analysis, to determine which lessons provide the greatest value.

5.    Prize and reward continual improvement and value the time, money and effort spent in gaining individual and organisational wisdom through lessons learned.

So, make sure you are gathering AND storing AND learning from experience to get the full benefits.

On a final note, I can guarantee you that if you do gather, store, and learn from experience you will get better at delivering your portfolios, programmes, and projects.

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